Is Mid-Century Modern Over?

published Nov 23, 2019
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In 1998 The New York Times noted a resurgence in a design style they dubbed “Mid-Century Modern,” the industrial, futuristic design style of the 1950’s and 60’s that originally signified optimism and a shift away from more traditional decorating styles. People began to wheel bar carts back into their apartments and order clean-lined, low-slung sofas for their living rooms from stores like West Elm and CB2. Instead of tufted armchairs, Eames loungers and egg-like womb chairs became coveted accent pieces again (authentic period originals were particularly popular). Oranges and mustards surged in popularity, providing a bright exclamation point to the woods, whites, blacks, and chromes that anchored the quintessential mid-century palette. But now that over two decades have passed since the reintroduction of this style: Is mid-century modern, or MCM as we’ll abbreviate here for the sake of ease, on its way out? 

The answer is complicated. With a new generation taking over the real estate market (hello, millennials!), design experts do expect to see a shift in how houses are furnished and decorated. Because if there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that younger generations always rebel against what their parents loved. Home decor is no exception to this rule, and we’re starting to see MCM furnishings—at least, those fully straight out of “Mad Men”-looking spaces—wane in popularity a bit. Here’s a look at why, and what you’re about to see instead.

Credit: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Getty Images

Why Mid-Century Modern Took Root in the Late 1990’s 

“The mid-century modern resurgence in the ‘90s was a result of getting away from the Arts and Crafts style,” says Justin Riordan, the founder of Spade and Archer Design Agency. Arts and Crafts furniture was very masculine and bulky, so people began looking for something that wasn’t so heavy and dense. With its clean lines and tapered legs, mid-century modern pieces struck a chord with Gen X-ers, and they began filling their homes with vintage pieces from the 1950’s and 1960’s, as well as reproductions that home decor stores began carrying to meet this new demand.

“If you look at Generation X—they were raised by Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers loved Country French decor, Arts and Crafts furniture, and pastels,” says Riordan. “So when Gen X started to figure out their own design sense, they wanted to do something that wasn’t what their parents did.” But they didn’t veer into MCM territory just out of spite. Nostalgia is part of this equation, too. “When you look at what Gen X’s grandparents were doing, that’s mid-century modern,” says Riordan. “And we always had a good time at our grandparents’ houses around mid-century modern furniture. So for Gen X, this look brought back feelings of happiness.”

Now that Gen X-ers are getting older, MCM is losing some of its appeal. Millennials are becoming the largest buying demographic in real estate, which means they’re also becoming the largest consumer base that’s buying furniture. Since some millennials were raised by Gen X-ers (who were born between the early-to-mid ’60s to around 1981), it only makes sense that MCM will to take a back seat as younger millennials age into their mid-to-late 20s—sort of, anyway. 

Credit: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Getty Images

Mid-Century Modern Still Has Some Staying Power

Because MCM started in the 1950s and 1960s, never really went away, and came on strong again in the 1990s, it has truly become part of the American design vocabulary. So rather than disappearing entirely, Riordan believes MCM is going to evolve, and the process has already begun. 

You can track this change by looking at brands like Article, which was inspired by the classic MCM look when they first launched and now carry product that caters to more industrial, Scandinavian, and boho styles. “We were way more of a mid-century modern brand when we were first getting into the market, but we’re seeing a shift, and our customers are asking for more,” says Zoe Garred, director of product at Article. “Five or 10 years ago people were doing a matchy-matchy kind of look. And we have seen that has now evolved into a more mixed approach.” 

According to Garred, the 1970s have slowly started creeping up on classic MCM design. “We’re seeing more earthy tones like greens and yellows, velvets, and rattans,” she says. Some designers think that motivation is about creating an inviting space. “Mid-century isn’t a super cozy style,” says Sara Malek Barney of Bandd Design. “People are moving towards cozier furniture and pieces, and mid-century modern is a little bit more buttoned up in its upholstery, hard lines, and the smaller scale of its pieces.” For Barney, millennials are more about function and usability and everyday life than their predecessors. 


So What’s Next?

Now that true mid-century modern pieces are more of an accent than a focal point, what other trends are taking root? Well, it depends who you ask. According to the Modsy, an online interior design service that lets you virtually “try on” your furniture before purchasing, MCM is still their customers top-ranked style, but the brand has noticing the aforementioned shift towards a version of the style that’s more organic and collected. “We’re seeing a softer, earthier side of the MCM look come out to play with bohemian, collected elements and organic shapes and forms,” says Alessandra Wood, VP of Style at Modsy. “It feels more eclectic because people are mixing in worldly patterns, pops of color, natural textures, and lots of plants.” 

So where does that leave us, then? Mid-century modern seems to be sticking around, but it looks a little softer and less minimal. We’re now in the era of “Mid-Century Boho,” if you want a new term for it. So don’t sell your Eames chairs yet—just throw a sheepskin over the backs of each of them and add a bunch of houseplants to your bookshelves. If you think you’re seeing less and less of MCM on Instagram and in magazines, look a little closer. It’s still there—it’s just getting a little more chill.